When I hear the statement “teachers who love teaching teach children to love learning,” I immediately think back to many of my elementary and middle school math teachers who consistently made math one of my favorite subjects in school. My earliest memory of math comes from kindergarten when we counted the days of school and used the count to learn concepts ranging from base ten to addition and subtraction. A more specific math memory, however, comes from second and third grade when I learned fractions and probability. My math teacher made these more difficult topics extremely engaging by connecting the entire unit to the popular show American Idol. For homework, we were encouraged to watch episodes from American Idol and then my teacher taught the math concepts through the voting process for the contestants. Not only did this unit allow for my class to connect with my teacher over a show he liked to watch, but it also allowed us to practice math concepts regarded as ‘boring’ and ‘confusing’ for long periods of time in increasing difficulty as the season, and challenge of my teacher’s questions, continued week after week. Later in elementary school, as I entered the gifted math program in fourth and fifth grade, my teacher further developed my love for math by engaging students through songs, math literature, rhymes/raps, and group work. To this day, I can recite raps about fraction multiplication, recall mnemonic devices for a variety of operations and formulas, and remember the stories of “Sir Cumference”.
During my middle school years, my math teachers and math experiences were just as positive as elementary school, but I also began to realize that I preferred algebra and problem solving over concepts involving geometry. I enjoyed the challenge of using logic and breaking apart formulas to solve answers far more than the visualization and memorization required for geometry. However, I wonder if this would be different if I had not always overheard the message that geometry was “the hardest” or “most confusing” math subject both at home and from older classmates at school. Aside from this, I grew to love working on math problems in a group setting, and eventually spent a year competing with the school’s Math Olympiad team. By the time I went into high school, I had great confidence in my math abilities and enjoyed the subject.
Unfortunately, my math experiences in high school were unlike all of my experiences in elementary and middle school – math became the class I looked forward to least each day. Though there was a variety of reasons I no longer enjoyed math, the primary two were that my teachers were not strong teachers and the pressure of preparing for standardized tests rushed instruction on difficult concepts. By the time I reached my senior year of high school, I opted out of math because I had completed all of my requirements, and looked forward to taking the easiest math class possible when I began in college “to get it over with” – a mentality that elementary and middle school me would not have shared. In reflecting on my math experience collectively, it is amazing to note that while I performed well in math in high school despite poor instruction, my confidence and passion for math dwindled when the teachers teaching me lacked interest and energy. By realizing this impact, I hope to use my high school experience to further motivate me to model my own math teaching after the example of my elementary school teachers who helped me to love learning – especially learning math.
Different from the math experiences described above, my science experiences were less memorable and exciting across all of my years in school. My earliest memory of science was working on my science fair project with my Dad in kindergarten. My project came from a desire to grow flowers at my house because all of my friends had beautiful flowers in their yards and I did not. As my project eventually showed me (by studying plant growth and sunlight), the reason growing a garden was difficult at my house was because of the high amount of shade covering our yard at all times. Like this science project, the rest of my science memories in elementary school involved hands-on projects and science labs. I remember keeping observation notebooks for environmental labs outside, building a wetland on school property to simulate an ecosystem, and forming small groups to practice the scientific method on a variety of topics. While I believe these methods of teaching were successful in facilitating my learning of science in elementary school, I did not enter middle school with enough interest in science to motivate me to overcome frustrations with new, more difficult science topics.
In middle school, my three years of science involved earth science, life science, and biology. Though Bill Nye did his best to make science learning seem fun and easy to understand, I lost interest in science when attempting to memorize types of rock, identify variations in soil, and understand processes with electricity seemed purposeless. Even though I now know the practical application of each of those seemingly boring or purposeless science topics, I feel that my middle school curriculum required teachers to cover too many topics in too little depth and therefore I was unable to make deeper connections in my learning. For this reason, I continued to label science class as ‘boring’ until high school when I encountered the perfect intersection between math and science in chemistry.
Even before the mathematical chemistry equations started, my chemistry teacher taught the foundations of chemistry (atoms, elements, mass, etc.) in an easy-to-understand manner with examples based in a real world context. She showed interesting videos analyzing the chemistry of everyday products and substances to engage us with the idea that “science is everywhere”, and provided us with many lab opportunities to test our knowledge on different everyday products. This foundation, combined with the amount of math involved in chemistry elements, measurements, and formulas, sparked my interest in science more than any previous science experience. As I went on to take the next level of chemistry as well as a physics class, science became more difficult and one of the classes I struggled to do well in; however, I enjoyed the amount of labs and hands-on learning I was able to do in order to engage with the concepts firsthand.
Based off of my personal science experiences, I recognize that the key to my success was the role of labs over lectures in science learning. Additionally, preparing for tests and exams at the high school level greatly facilitated my learning because I spent time repeatedly memorizing and practicing material so that I could get any variation of a problem correct. While being taught science well did not result in me enjoying or loving the subject, I believe the same is still true from elementary school as is now with my view on science learning – I never connected to the ‘why’ of science despite the overused phrase “science is everywhere” and “you need to know science to understand all of life”. In my own teaching, I hope to discover ways to encourage students to make connections with science that spark an awareness of the ‘why’ without me reiterating that it is important in my own words.